How to Tell if a Black Friday Deal is a Steal

PHOTO: People shop at the Century City shopping mall in Los Angeles, California, for the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" sales, Nov. 26, 2010.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

"Black Friday" takes place Nov. 25 and I can't remember a year when it was more hyped than it has been in 2011. I started receiving pitches and press releases about it in late summer. Sheesh!

I guess retailers are desperate to make the promise of Black Friday come true for themselves. (Legend says the term was coined because it's the purchases Americans make between Thanksgiving and New Year's that bring retailers' into the "black," or profitability.)

I'm no scrooge, but I do want to issue a warning about Black Friday sales: Not every sale is a bargain and not every bargain is on sale.

Here's what I mean. Say you buy a gallon of milk every week for $3.50. Then, one day, you walk into the supermarket and see a huge sign: "Today only! Milk just $3.50!" You would know that's ridiculous because that's what you always pay for milk. But what about things you don't buy so often -- like cameras, tablet computers and winter coats? It's harder to tell if the splashy sales for those are any good.

Retailers play games to get our greedy little hearts going. What do you think those "compare at" price tags are all about? You know, the ones where the store states its price right underneath the "compare at" price which is supposedly what some other retailer charges.

Here are other ploys:

PHOTO: People shop at the Century City shopping mall in Los Angeles, California, for the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" sales, Nov. 26, 2010.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
1.
The Never-ending Sale

Years ago I investigated a popular clothing store that marked its classic lines "50% off!" one month, then "buy one get one free" the next month -- and continued this cycle year round. The products were NEVER not on sale!

2.
Sky-high Mark-ups

Sleazy retailers will actually mark merchandise up just so they can mark it down. That way, you think you're getting a great deal, but the store's charging the amount it always wanted in the first place. This practice is actually illegal in some jurisdictions, but it's hard to prove because consumer watchdogs can't monitor stores every day all year round.

3.
Make and Model Mix-up

Stores that offer a "low-price guarantee" in which they promise to beat their competitors' prices can be crafty too. Often these stores deliberately invent their own names and model numbers for their merchandise so it's difficult for you to shop and compare.

4.
Disappearing Carrots

"Loss leaders" are the other clever tactic. This is when a store sells some products at prices so low it loses money on them. The idea is to get you in the store, where you'll buy other high-priced items while you're there. The trick here is to cherry pick the true deals and skip the rest.

5.
Bogus "BOGO"

And then there's the "Buy one, get the second one free" deal. This is a trap IF the extra item is something you really don't need. If you won't use it, then don't pay the extra money. Ask the retailer if it's a true "buy-one-get-one" or "BOGO" sale or if each item is actually 50 percent off. If that's the case, you can just buy one and get it for half price!

To be a truly savvy consumer you need to be a good comparison shopper. If it's any consolation, to be a good comparison shopper, you need to be a truly frequent shopper! Or… you need a computer or smart phone.

Look up Black Friday sales in advance at websites like:

BlackFriday.info

BFads.net

TheBlackFriday.com

Or try the Smart Phone App simply named Black Friday. Then, take the time to actually truth-squad the sales claims. There are great cost comparison websites for that too.

PriceGrabber.com

PricerSpider.com

Finally, if you end up dozing instead of researching thanks to the magical chemical in turkey that makes you ve-ry slee-py, then at least use a good bar code scanner app once you get to the store. As you know, these programs display the price of the scanned item at other major stores.

RedLaser

ShopSavvy

The point is, don't assume you're getting a great deal just because you're getting it on Black Friday… or Cyber Monday… or Small Business Saturday.

 
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